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Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race: Complete sensory overload

Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race: Complete sensory overload

As we count down to one of the biggest events in the global sailing calendar, we catch up with Australian Training Manager, Drew Hulton-Smith as he prepares to take to the water this year on board our two Clipper 68 ocean racers, based in Sydney for the 72nd edition of the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race.

The Clipper 68 yachts first took part in this iconic race after an epic sail across the world’s oceans from the UK in 2013, comprising of teams made up of seasoned and novice sailors alike.

“The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is genuinely an iconic event, recognised incontrovertibly as one of the Great Ocean Races of the world."

Sharing his experience of the race, Drew says: “My affinity with the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race dates back as far as I can remember. Throughout my childhood, practically every summer was spent at my grandparents’ house at Austin’s Ferry on the Derwent River. The one indelible and most influential memory over decades of these visits was to walk along Constitution Dock on New Year’s Eve, admiring the race boats and absorbing the activity of the crews. My obsession with the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race was cemented as my involvement in sailing progressed, and I am proud to lead a crew for another journey south aboard a Clipper 68 Racing Yacht.

“The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is genuinely an iconic event, recognised incontrovertibly as one of the Great Ocean Races of the world. Not simply in terms of its significance in the worldwide sailing calendar or even for its considerable impact upon sport in general; the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is carved in stone as a must-see event for both seasoned sailors and armchair admirals, for Sydney-siders and supporters around the world, for young and old. The Boxing Day tradition sees every possible vantage point around picturesque Sydney Harbour crowded with spectators, and millions of televisions around the world tuned in to watch the start.

“If simply watching the start seems exciting, then actually being there is almost complete sensory overload. The build-up over the weeks and days reaches boiling point on the morning of 26 December, where the Marina and Clubhouse of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia are filled to overflowing with sailors, families and friends, dignitaries and sponsors, and the media. It is with a sense of foreboding and relief that lines are finally slipped, and the procession of yachts heads out into Sydney Harbour for final pre-race arrangements.

“It takes conscious, active concentration not to be swept up in the noise and excitement and to remain focused on the boat, the crew and the environment. Spectator boats of all shapes and sizes bump gun whales in every bay and cove outside the exclusion zones, helicopters roar overhead, as the pre-start war-dance accelerates between opposing boats in ever closer proximity as each minute counts down to the starters cannon.

“The final five minutes of the pre-start pass in what seems like seconds, and we are off. Instantaneously, Sydney Harbour seems to shrink considerably as 80 yachts begin short-tacking their way from the start line to Sydney Heads. The intensity of the start and those first few miles of the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race sets it apart from other ocean races, and sets the scene for the 630 nautical miles that follow.

“After clearing the Heads and the seaward turning marks, the spectator fleet begins to diminish as we head south. Hopefully a prevailing north easterly allows Spinnakers to be set, bringing exhilarating downwind surfing conditions among the building ocean swell. Concentration is the key, with regular rotation of the helm and trimmers to ensure the boat is always travelling at maximum speed. Constant assessment of the weather and the routing plan dictates the navigation and anticipation of the next change. Then begins the routine of watch keeping, eating, sleeping, steering, sail trimming, radio reporting schedules, navigation, and attending to the endless list of things to do on an ocean going racing yacht. All the while, everyone knows that sooner or later, the notorious ‘Southerly Buster’ will arrive. The 2015 race was no exception, with a cold front that came through with such aggression and rapid intensity that one third of the fleet was forced to retire from the race on the first night. This is what we came here for, trained for, prepared for, and when the time came, acted on and overcame.

“The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race comprises very definite, separate stages. Following the intense but brief start is the long run down the New South Wales coast. Important tactical routing decisions determine whether to keep to the coast for protection, or to head offshore in search of the East Australian Current. Once reaching Green Cape at the south-eastern point of mainland Australia, the Skipper must make the call and notify Race Control that the boat, the crew and its equipment are ready and able to tackle the next phase, the notorious stretch of water between Australia and Tasmania known as Bass Strait. Although the crossing is only 200 nautical miles, the Strait is relatively very shallow and experiences the confluence of weather and swell from different directions. All of this can combine to produce conditions ranging from calm to catastrophic, and we need to be ready for any or all of them.

"As we close on our destination, the fact that we are now sailing in ‘The Roaring Forties’ is impossible to ignore, as approaching cold front depressions bring conditions that are generated deep in the Southern Ocean, just off the coast of Antarctica. The reward at the end of this stage of the race is the unforgettable, picturesque sight of Tasman Island"

“With the Tasman coast rising on the horizon, the next phase of the race begins, as we pass the increasingly stunning backdrop of the Tasmanian eastern seaboard over crystal clear iridescent blue water. With every minute of latitude crossed, the climate gradually begins to change. The T-Shirts and Shorts of Sydney Harbour are replaced with layers of thermals, waterproofs and beanies as the air and water temperatures steadily drop. As we close on our destination, the fact that we are now sailing in ‘The Roaring Forties’ is impossible to ignore, as approaching cold front depressions bring conditions that are generated deep in the Southern Ocean, just off the coast of Antarctica. The reward at the end of this stage of the race is the unforgettable, picturesque sight of Tasman Island, Cape Pillar and Cape Raoul off the south-eastern most point of Tasmania.

“From here begins the final stretch into Storm Bay, past The Iron Pot and along the lower reaches of the Derwent River towards the finishing line at Battery Point. Although the finish is within grasp, many a race has been won or lost in these final miles. Storm Bay is notorious for sudden and dramatic changes, and the challenges of the Derwent can make all the difference between hero and heartbreak. Now is not the time for complacency or celebration, the race is not over until the line is crossed.

“Despite all the challenges and rewards, difficulties and achievements, despair and elation that may present, there is one thing that is certain with the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Whatever the time of day or night, whether you come first or last, the people of Hobart always put on a huge reception for the arriving yachts. The welcome is always warm and memorable, and the sense of achievement as you enjoy the first of a few beers is palpable. With the boat secured in Constitution Dock, typically follows the obligatory visit to the Customs House Hotel for a rum (or two) and the camaraderie that is one of the most rewarding parts of ocean racing as you swap war stories with other boats and crew.

“I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to face the challenge of the 2016 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, on a proven boat with four circumnavigations and three Hobarts under her keel, safe with the knowledge that we have supplemented the existing knowledge and skills her crew brings to the boat with worlds best practice training through Clipper Australia.”

To join Drew and our teams at the start line this Boxing Day (26 December 2016), click here.